Gill Sans and Eric Gill’s “Domestic Hose”

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Eric Gill, lumbersexual (among many other things).

You know that font list in the top bar of your word processor? When was the last time you changed your font from the default Cambria/Calibri/Times New Roman? Have a peek through that font list. Look at the options. THE OPPORTUNITIES.

One of the fonts you’ll probably see in there is Gill Sans. For that, you can thank Mr. Eric Gill.

Eric Gill is best known for his typeface designs, woodcuts/engravings/illustrations, and sculptures, but he also wrote a number of essays on art, religion, etc., and was pretty active in the Catholic community following his conversion. He’s been called the “heir to William Morris” by The New York Times, probably as a result of his contributions to the private press movement.

Gill created quite a few typefaces that have lasted to today, like Perpetua and Joanna, but Gill Sans is by far the most renowned. According to one writer, “Gill Sans is the Helvetica of England.” It was commissioned by Monotype in the 1920s, and has since become one of the most recognizable typefaces of our modern world – it’s the one you see on those vintage Penguins.

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If you’re interested in typography, Dan Rhatigan discusses the collaborative efforts between Gill and Monotype in the creation of Gill Sans in this article. Rhatigan concludes his article thus: “Gill Sans is without a doubt Eric Gill’s creation: his playful variations upon a theme remain distinctive and true to his sensibility. However, the family has only flourished over the years thanks to Gill’s original collaboration with the advisors, draughtsmen[,] and engineers at Monotype, who were then charged with maintaining and expanding his designs after his initial approval, and certainly in the many years after Gill passed away in 1940.” So, as with anything with lasting value, Gills Sans has been updated to suit a range of circumstances and times.

And maybe that’s for the better. After all, a lot of people no longer want anything to do with Eric Gill.

Eric Gill was, quite objectively, a terrible person. In his personal diaries, he documents his sexual relationships with his sisters, teenage daughters, and dog. Here are some samples, to give you the gist:

  • “[on visiting one of his young daughter’s bedrooms] Stayed ½ hour – put penis in her anus.” (January 12, 1920)
  • “Bath and slept with Gladys [his sister].” (November 1, 1929)
  • “Bath. Continued experiment with dog after and discovered that a dog will join with a man.” (December 8, 1929)

And then there’s this gem, which isn’t all that terrible but is just too glorious a description to omit from this post:

  • “A man’s penis and balls are very beautiful things and the power to see this beauty is not confined to the opposite sex. The shape of the head of a man’s erect penis is very excellent in the mouth. There is no doubt about this. I have often wondered – now I know.” (June 22, 1927)

During Gill’s lifetime, few people seem to have known about his… inappropriate sexual ventures. All of these controversial activities were only made public in 1989, in Fiona MacCarthy’s biography of Eric Gill (appropriately titled Eric Gill). Until then, Gill jut seemed like a good Catholic man who, following his official acceptance of Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Saviour at the ripe age of 31, started a lay religious order with his wife and even wore a chastity belt. He created some renowned pieces of Catholic art, the most beautiful (in my opinion) being the decorations he contributed to the Golden Cockerel Press’ Four Gospels of the Lord Jesus Christ.

All the while, though, Eric Gill was succumbing to his fervour for the phallus, producing scandalous nudes such as “The Domestic Hose”:

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That glorious piece went for £3,500 at auction in December 2014. Quite ironically, it was part of an auction that featured an abundance of children’s books and illustrations.

Gill’s instances of incest, bestiality, and pedophilia have indeed affected some modern considerations of his work. For example, following the opening of a Monotype exhibition about Gill’s type work, Digital Arts published an article entitled “Why we’re not joining in the celebration of typographer Eric Gill”. The text of this article is preceded by the word Rapist, written in large Gill Sans letters. In an article on Catholic website Tradition in Action, Patrick Odou warns readers that “Gill’s drawings are extremely indecent. I don’t recommend that anyone look at them.” He continues: “A father and brother like Gill should raise the indignation of Catholics! They should have an equally strong rejection of any of his ideas.”

To be sure, many Catholics did, and do, object. In 1998, some Catholics called for the removal of Gill’s Stations of the Cross at Westminster Cathedral. To this, former WC administrator Bishop George Stack simply stated that “there was no consideration given to taking these down. A work of art stands in its own right. Once it has been created it takes on a life of its own.” The Eric Gill Society doesn’t even think Gill’s escapades are worth mentioning in the biography they have on their website. So does this mean that we’re supposed to try looking at Eric Gill’s art without considering the insane genius who created it?

As Fiona MacCarthy asks, “do we like them [Gill’s artworks] the less knowing, as we know now, that during those years at Ditchling, Gill was habitually abusing his two elder daughters? … The knowing affects the viewing. How can it not? But Gill is too good an artist, too ferocious and intrepid a controversialist, to be protected and glossed over. We need to see him whole.”

Eric Gill was f*cked up, but he created some excruciatingly beautiful art. How are we supposed to treat that work, though, knowing what we know now? In Canada, for example, parks and streets and film awards shows were renamed after the world found out that filmmaker Claude Jutra had been a pedophile. And, as much as Bishop George Stack may like to believe that “a work of art stands in its own right”, an artist’s lived experiences do inform the creation of that art, and an artist’s reputation does inform its reception. So does an awareness of Gill’s sex life make his art more or less appealing? I’m not going to tell you what to think, or even what I think, but given the exorbitant prices Gills go for at auction, as well as the existence of many institutional and private collections that continue to grow, I’d say that this awareness has only made him more collectable.

And now I leave you with this fun comic:eric_gill.jpg

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3 thoughts on “Gill Sans and Eric Gill’s “Domestic Hose”

  1. Interesting article. (I’m a bit of a font nerd and wrote almost all of the Wikipedia article on Gill Sans.)

    I think the primary issue is that Gill Sans is the graphic design of an entire era. It was totally, without question *the* font of Britain from the 1930s to the late 1950s. While unquestionably a time of considerable poverty, that was also a real apex point for British art and design and influence – the period when a very high proportion of London was built, the war won and the welfare state established. So for anyone British with an interest in history it’s bound up with a world of clean, spare Penguin paperbacks, Ladybird guides, country walks in the Chilterns, pub signs and gleaming steam trains, sacrifice and reconstruction. So in a sense Gill Sans is a little too big to fail, at least in the UK. Deleting it means writing out a huge chunk of what British design looks like. (And Monotype, damn them, knew they were hard-wiring Gill Sans into British minds as what sans-serifs looked like – look at how they appeal to nationalism in that poster! It worked, too – walk through a graveyard with more than a few post-1930 burials and you’ll see its influence on many headstones.)

    I don’t personally think there’s anything wrong with using Gill Sans, but I can certainly see why people may find its use…not offensive, but more than a little absurd. I laugh regularly when I see schools using it as their corporate font, and its use as the corporate font of Save the Children is just so wrong it’s brilliant.

    1. Thank you for your comment!
      Deeming Gill Sans “the graphic design of an entire era” is an interesting take – one I hadn’t considered. It makes sense, though. Each typeface seems to have a particular… connotation? Personality? I’m thinking of Comic Sans and Helvetica here.
      Anyway, I appreciate your taking the time to share your insight. And I never noticed the Save the Children font! How unfortunate. ;)

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